Learning with your Hands

Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

The pot came from Tel Akko, Israel. It had spent the last few thousand years buried under a fieldstone wall when Jane Skinner uncovered it in July. As a second-year archeology grad student at Yale, she was spending the summer excavating around this wall, using a trowel and a small pickaxe to break apart the clumps of sand. The pot was in shards when she found it, but once she had rebuilt it with Elmer’s glue and sand, she could see that this was a Cypriot jug made in the Iron Age. Yet she couldn’t tell exactly how it had been made.

Nine months later, Skinner hands a photo of the reconstructed pot to Maishe Dickman. He looks at it, slaps a cone of clay onto his electric potter’s wheel. With his foot, he sets the wheel turning and flattens the clay with a moistened palm. He eyes it for its center, and once he’s found it, puts his thumb there: the clay rises magically on all sides.

“After each pull, I collar the clay, and it does something physiological — I don’t know what exactly, but it makes the clay less likely to twist as the wheel is spinning,” he says.

For potters, pulling and collaring clay is routine, as unremarkable as riding a bike or holding a pen. But to the clutch of anthropologists and archeologists gathered in Dickman’s George Street studio, every finger mark he makes in the clay is worthy of scrutiny. These students — mostly grad students — are here as part of Anne Underhill’s “Archeological Ceramics” class. They have brought photos of bowls and jugs and figurines from China, Mongolia, Central America and the Middle East, hoping to learn about the creation of these objects by watching Dickman’s hands.

Dickman’s hands haven’t typed out any dissertations or graded any papers, but they have been quietly contributing to research and learning at Yale for decades. If you look him up on the Yale Directory, you will find him listed as a museum technician at the Peabody. Don’t let the drab title fool you: Maishe Dickman is an artifact-and-book-protector at work, a master-potter and kiln-builder in his studio, and an insect-collector at home and in the jungles of French Guiana. And although Dickman insists that he is no intellectual — “I like to work with my hands,” he says — his skill in these fields have led him to a particular niche in the borderlands of academia: professors and curators come to him for his manual know-how. Part of that know-how was acquired during his time volunteering as a teen in the Peabody’s insect collection and during his training as an industrial designer at the University of Bridgeport. But the bulk, he says, comes from his 64 years of trial and error.

In the mornings, he can be found making mounts for museum displays in the Peabody workshop. The air is full of sawdust motes, and it thrums with the sounds of construction: buzz saws, the clacking of wood, the hum of machines.

“I still, thank God almighty, have all of my fingers,” he says. “Not all of us do.” His fingers are his best tools. Today, he is using them to heat sheets of Plexiglas over an electrical wire. Once heated, these hard rectangles can be bent into cradles for books and scrolls from ancient Egypt. Just as the feel of clay in his hands can tell Dickman when a pot is as thin as it will go, he can only know when the Plexiglas is hot enough by flexing it to test its consistency. “I tried timing this by looking at the clock, but every piece of plastic is different,” he says. “Can’t do a four-minute egg in three minutes, no matter how hard you boil the water.”

His exactitude he learned from his parents, who, among other things, raised hundreds of parakeets in their house in the working-class New Haven neighborhood known as The Hill. “Our entire basement was an aviary. We did it to make a little extra money, sold them to pet shops,” he says. “My jobs were cleaning cages, feeding, handling, keeping a daily diary of each pair — when they mated, when the eggs were laid, when they hatched, how they grew.” He remembers slipping a plastic band over the foot of each chick when it was still the size of a fingernail.

Touring the Peabody galleries with Dickman, I can see that he has maintained that standard of precision. He points out a tiny wire that holds a diamond in place. It is hardly wider than a hair, and he has painted it silver so that visitors will think it is part of the jewel. “As a mounts-maker, my profession is a very humble one,” he says. “My best work you can’t see.” And yet as invisible as that work may be, it is what will allow someone to examine a jewel or try to decipher a hieroglyph when they walk into the museum. He knows that their focus is on the object, and his job is to create an environment that indulges that focus. He is interested in the material protecting the object, the angle of the light.

After a morning at the Peabody, Dickman spends his afternoons mixing glaze and shaping clay in his studio. Once a year, though, he leaves behind this routine and flies to the jungles of French Guiana. He is there looking for insects. “I will sit with my back against a tree for three days, in unendurable heat and freezing cold, getting rained on and bitten — just to catch a beetle,” he says. He has also been known to sit by animal carcasses, piles of rotting fruit and bright lights in the hope of nabbing a butterfly or katydid.

This work also traces back to his parakeet-feeding days. At a family picnic, his mother saw him trying to trap migrating monarchs in his hands, and she began to sew him a fine-mesh butterfly net. He clumsily pinned his treasures onto a piece of cardboard above his bed. Later, at 15 or 16, he began to volunteer at the Peabody under Charles Remington, founder of the museum’s insect collection. From Remington he learned how to spread a butterfly’s wings with wax paper, how to place the pins as inconspicuously as possible. Dickman still works on his specimens every night, placing them on a Styrofoam island in a Tupperware full of water. The next day, the humidity will have permeated their bodies, making them easier to spread and pin.

In this field as well, his expertise has led professors to seek him out and ask him for help. He collects Noctuid moths for entomologist Larry Gall, disease-transmitting sand flies for public health researcher Leonard Munstermann. He is perfectly happy to contribute to their projects, but that is not the reason he keeps going back to South America. “I collect as an artist,” he says, “not as a scientist.”

If you press him further about what drives him in all his jobs, he shrugs. And he is vague about his role in the academic projects he is part of.

“I don’t even know what anthropologists do most of the time,” he says. But he knows the feel of clay spinning cool under his palm, remembers the particular jiggle of a 6.5-inch Titan beetle trying to escape from his grasp. And he knows that Anne Underhill’s students can learn a lot with their hands. “They might run their fingers over the side of a pot,” he says. “Feel the finger marks and touch the soul of the person who made it 3,000 years ago.”